Saturday, March 13, 2010

Underrated Performer of the Week: Jonathan Frid

He was once so popular that he received massive amounts of mail from his female fans imploring that he nibble on their necks. No, I'm not talking about Robert Patinson from the Twilight movies nor the two vampire hunks from True Blood. No, not even Frank Langella, who played a sexy Dracula on Broadway and in film. All those performers owe no small debt to the original vampire-turned-pop culture phenomenon: Dark Shadows's Barnabus Collins, as played by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid.

Born in Ontario in 1924, John Herbert Frid began acting in prep school as a teenager. He studied drama at McMaster University in Ontario, though his college days were interrupted by a stint in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II. After the war, he graduated from McMaster and attended the Royal Academy of Dramatics Arts in London.

Returning to Canada in 1949, he worked in repertory companies and on television. Five years later, he enolled in the Yale School of Drama, eventually earning a Master's degree in directing in 1957. His first love was acting, though, and he played a wide range of roles for the next ten years--from Shakespearean characters to Starbuck in The Rainmaker. He gradually became interested in teaching drama and was looking for a position at a college when he was offered a brief stint as a vampire in a daytime soap called Dark Shadows.

Dan Curtis created Dark Shadows for ABC in 1966 as a contemporary Gothic soap set in the New England town of Collinsport. The show didn't perform well initially, so in an effort to liven things up, a plotline involving a ghost was added. Viewer interest perked up a little, so Curtis and head writer Art Wallace introduced a vampire in episode 211--and a pop culture icon was born.

A conflicted vampire still pining for his beloved (but long-dead) Josette, Barnabas was alternately charming and cruel--a perfect, well-rounded role for the Shakespearean-trained Frid to sink his teeth into (sorry...I just had to write that). Frid and Dark Shadows became so popular that Curtis adapted the series in 1970 as the theatrical film House of Dark Shadows (which summarized some of the show's plots and added an "ending"). Its financial success resulted in a sequel called Night of Dark Shadows, which didn't feature Barnabas...a bad decision in terms of box office.

After its burst of mainstream popularity, Dark Shadows faded slowly as must-see daytime television. The series ended in 1971. Frid, though, continued to stay busy. He starred in the made-for-TV movie The Devil's Daughter (with Joseph Cotten and Shelley Winters), headlined Oliver Stone's 1974 horror film Seizure, and returned to theatre.

Frid began doing readings at Dark Shadows conventions in the 1980s. He enjoyed that so much that he eventually developed the Readers Theatre and a one-man show. He also continued to perform on the stage in productions such as Arsenic and Old Lace and Mass Appeal.

Jonathan Frid never married. He is now 85 and semi-retired. But his legacy lives on--Johnny Depp may play Barnabus in a new version of Dark Shadows being developed by Tim Burton.


  1. Rick, I was never really in to Dark Shadows but many of my High School friends were. Your post brought back memories of the late 60's.

  2. Rick, My 31 year old son is collecting the daytime soap Dark Shadows DVDs . (I think it is a box set). I will tell him about the new version of Dark Shadows.

  3. I always liked Dark Shadows when I was a young girl. I remember one day a boy asked me what I liked best about this soap opera and I was taken aback, having never thought of it as that! I remember the music box with Josette's theme and can still hum it to this day. This was a blast from my young past, Rick!

  4. Rick, I am the biggest Dark Shadows fan I know. I watched every single episode with relish when I was a kid. My friends and I discussed the episodes at school during lunch because we thought they were so cool and scary. I even got my little brother interested in the show. Years later as an adult I saw all the episodes in order. I enjoyed them as much as I did as a kid. Jonathan Frid was my favorite character. I think he is a fine actor and portrayed Barnabus Collins as a vampire who was not totally mean but one who could be compassionate as well. I have seen House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows. My little brother knew how much I liked Jonathan Frid so he bought me a book about Dark Shadows on 35th anniversary of the show. In my opinion Jonathan Frid made Dark Shadows into an A+ soap opera that has no equal today.

  5. Sorry, Rick, I was so excited about telling you how much I liked Jonathan Frid and Dark Shadows, I forgot to say I think you wrote an outstanding post and enjoyed it very much!!!

  6. Thanks for the comments, everyone! It's always nice to hear from other DARK SHADOWS fans. You know, the prime time remake with Ben Cross as Barnabus...but it didn't last long.

  7. :) I won't take offense that you called him Barnabus (and not Barnabas). He has a very active website--his new medium to conquer--at